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PRAVIN PILLAY WORK (article first published : 2005-02-26)

South African born artist based in Canada, Pravin Pillay, has presented his large-scale digital print installation, Desire for Sale, to The Durban Culture and Documentation Centre. The permanent exhibit was launched in a ceremony attended by Minister Narend Singh and representatives of the Department of Arts, Culture & Tourism KZN as well as the artist’s close family and relatives.

Also a writer and cyber-philosopher, Pravin Pillay was raised in Canada and is of South Asian ancestry. He understands existence from multiple and sometimes fractured perspectives. Memory, time, and consciousness are common themes that surface in his work.

Desire for Sale has been exhibited internationally and has received considerable attention in the international media and amongst the art-going public. The work examines the inner nature of desire in the present digital era in relation to the past experience of the indentured Indian worker. The artist challenges the viewer to understand how desire for a better life urged Indians to establish a new home in South Africa and how desire continues to shape memory, history and perception of contemporary life across cultures in the age of global advertising.

The work is an 8' x 16' digital print produced on a simulated billboard within a gallery environment. The original archived photograph was graphically encoded with the text "desire is your only limit" – derived from the artist’s research on Sri Aurobindo, an Indian yogi who was politically active during the time of the British Raj and also at the time his great-grandparents were making the voyage across the Indian Ocean (c.1912).

“I am interested in the self-imposed fictions that we create to reinforce identity and how image, language, history and technology interact in this process,” says Pravin. “The challenge with Desire for Sale was to have it relate physically to the viewer in the gallery in such a way that there was a shift in thinking and perception as they moved their body in space with regards to the work.

“Scale proved to be as important as the image composition to both pull the viewers’ gaze and feel the presence of the image,” he continues. “It was intended that the viewer would be drawn in to investigate why their eyes could not resolve the graphic. As they approached the work, the viewer is confronted with the text composition that was also difficult to resolve in terms of meaning, readable script, and language of origin. This - 'Oh that's interesting' - moment was intended to hold the viewer long enough to ponder the reason for the lack of clarity. In doing so, the content of the text itself, the attempt to figure the meaning of the text, and the interplay with the deconstruction of the image opens the space of ambiguity and hopefully engenders a subtle re-engineering of the viewer’s cognitive process.

Desire for Sale features an archetypal image of immigrants dressed in an effort to assimilate with the colonizing entity,” Pravin explains. “It is a familiar image that is passed down from generation to generation of immigrant families around the world. In linear sequence, I e-mailed my particular family image to each surviving descendant of the family in that photo around the world. The criterion for inclusion was access to the Internet, a printer, a scanner, and willingness to participate in the artwork. Each relative was required to print, scan, and e-mail the image back to me. I would then send the electronic image to the next relative. Each time the photo jumped in and out of the Internet, a degeneration of the image occurred. The final degenerated image was sent to an online processor, and graphically encoded into text "desire is your only limit." (Sri Aurobindo)

“My ancestors travelled to South Africa and became the face of colonialism to native South Africans. Having been colonised in India, these immigrants now represented a colonial fiction as displayed by their Edwardian/Indian dress. Inherent in the process of racially-based and media-ased colonialism is a dissolution of origins and memory. These immigrants became a kind of living advertisement for the new colonised way of being. By placing the billboard with this degenerated text driven image, I am attempting to address the conflation between media representation and memory while asserting that colonial thought is a mental process that is ongoing and has always been transcendent of race, gender, or nationality. This work aims for ambiguity that involves the viewer in a visual dialectic regarding their contemporary position in a society evolved from a colonial and capitalist effort.”

It is fitting that this work has been donated to the Documentation Centre. While it now represents a wider culture, it was originally created to archive the culture of Durban’s Indian community. The work can be seen at the Documentation Centre in Derby Road next to Greyville Racecourse.




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